Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow review: "A hefty account of the man who helped shape the future of the United States"

Geoffrey Lyons reviews Ron Chernow's biography of the enterprising statesman whose legacy endures in modern America

By geoffrey.lyons

17 Mar 2017

- Photo credit: PA

By Ron Chernow, Head of Zeus, RRP £13.49

This year, Londoners will finally have the chance to experience what Michelle Obama has called “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen”. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning hip-hop musical “Hamilton” hits the West End in December, with touts currently asking for as much as £3,000 a ticket. 

As they wait for opening night, theatre-goers lucky enough to secure a seat could pass the time by dipping into the book that inspired Miranda. Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a hefty one-volume account of the man whose legacy has helped to shape modern America. Bookended by adversity – born in the “tropical hellhole” of the British West Indies and fatally shot in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr – his life was a supreme example of the upper limits of human productivity. In his 49 years (or 47, as his date of birth is disputed), he was the first treasury secretary, founder of the Federalist Party and the US Coast Guard, principal author of what Chernow calls “that classic gloss on the national charter”, The Federalist, and, most crucially, chief architect of the nation’s financial system. Contemporary Americans, Chernow argues, are “indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world”.

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American schoolchildren today learn of two competing models for the infant republic: Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian democracy. The former, advocated by Hamilton’s personal and political nemesis Thomas Jefferson, was based on a virtuous and civic-minded agrarian society uncorrupted by the industrial and aristocratic classes. Hamilton’s vision, by contrast, rested on a strong central government buffered by robust financial and manufacturing industries. 

Looking at today’s America, there's no question whose vision triumphed. Chernow deftly demonstrates how this victory became plain, even within Hamilton’s lifetime. As president, Jefferson was reluctant to dismantle the financial institutions that Hamilton had erected during his tenure as treasury secretary under George Washington and that he (Jefferson) had so long opposed. After sending his own treasury secretary, Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, on a mission to uncover any blunders from Hamilton’s time at the Treasury, Jefferson asked him what he had found. The dispirited emissary replied: “I have found the most perfect system ever formed”.

"The depths to which Hamilton and his fellow Founding Fathers stooped in their character attacks would make even a modern day Twitter troll wince."

Aside from his enviable CV and prodigious output (he bequeathed historians nearly 30 bulky volumes of papers), Hamilton was a cantankerous and prickly man unable to rise above an insult. The gutter press of the day makes modern tabloid journalism look relatively staid, and Hamilton’s chief preoccupation was to use it for lobbing broadsides at his Republican adversaries. The depths to which Hamilton and his fellow Founding Fathers stooped in their pseudonymous character attacks on each other would make even a modern day Twitter troll wince. Such dirty politics is all the more remarkable considering their close collaboration in drafting the nation’s founding documents.

These vendettas, one of which led to Hamilton’s death, reflected what Chernow portrays as the founders’ contradictory guises: “sublime and ordinary, selfless and selfish, heroic and humdrum”. After descending from the “Olympian heights” of 1776 (the Declaration of Independence) and 1787 (the US Constitution), these philosopher-statesmen became your everyday mudslingers, whose antics seriously undermine the idea of a golden age of American politics.  

Chernow is a master biographer, whose previous subjects include John D Rockefeller and George Washington, the latter book winning him a Pulitzer Prize. Alexander Hamilton compliments his oeuvre superbly, with hardly a page that doesn’t captivate, and fresh scholarship that will occupy historians for years to come.

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